Yesterday we looked at how you might be able to develop both personal growth and serenity in your life. Today we want to look at some of the mistakes that I made in my early recovery, and how you might avoid making the same ones.
I did enough right in my early recovery that I managed to stay clean and sober for the long haul (it has been 11 year and counting now), but I also can look back and clearly see where I made some mistakes. Hopefully by exposing those mistakes I can help you to avoid them.
Mistake #1: Delayed exercise for far too long
I think I was probably just a bit lazy, to be honest. I was already trying to juggle a couple of things in my recovery, not to mention the task of simply staying clean and sober to begin with. But to try to break into this new exercise routine and really stick with it just seemed like too much for me.
This was a mistake, of course. If I could go back and give myself advice in the past then I would urge the early recovery self to start exercising immediately. The reason that this is so urgent is that the long term benefits of regular exercise are so significant, and yet the short term benefits of starting a new exercise program are very weak or even completely negative (exercise is a chore in the beginning!).
A couple of different people were pushing me towards the idea of exercise when I was in very early recovery, but I resisted the idea. Actually I indulged them at one point and tried to get started with some basic workouts and I just could not get into it. I just wasn’t feeling it at the time, for whatever reason. I did make an effort but nothing really clicked for me. So for a long time during my early recovery, I sort of gave up on the idea that exercise was an important part of sobriety. I just mentally wrote it off because it did not really work out for me. I gave it a try, made some sort of effort, and that effort seemed to fall short and produce poor results. Why spend my energy on something that is not helping me, right?
It would have been nice to go back and convince myself to stick with it. Years later, I suddenly embraced distance running, and my life has never been the same. Have you ever noticed how some people who run frequently or work out at the gym seem to be almost fanatical about it? I am now one of these people, because I am in a routine of exercise and I would not dream of going without it. But my point here is this: I used to be a “normal person” who never exercised at all, and thought that the gym rats and the regular joggers were all fanatics. Then I became one.
So what changed? I guess the time was right and I just fell into a routine and things clicked for me. I cannot describe it any better than that and therefore the Nike slogan seems to make a lot of sense and have profound wisdom in it all at the same time: Just Do It.
Solution: It is nice to be in great shape, when exercise is light and fun and distance running is a joy. The problem, of course, is in getting to that point. This is where the Nike slogan becomes so appropriate: Just Do It. There is wisdom in that saying because there is no other way to make it easy to get into shape. There are no shortcuts that you can take to being in great shape. You either put in the effort or you do not. You cannot pay someone a little extra money to suddenly be in shape. You have to earn it with your own sweat.
This harsh reality may be frustrating to some people (it was to me, if I am honest about it!) but it is also contains a huge gift hidden within it. Because you cannot “buy” your way into being in shape, the resulting boost in self esteem is absolutely enormous. Once you put in the effort and push yourself for several months, you achieve a level of health and fitness that is unique and personal to your own experience. No one can take this fitness away from you. It is yours to own as your own achievement. You feel so much better about yourself than you did when you were idle. This happens on so many different levels that it is impossible to convey in written words. You will have to take my word for it that you get a ton of benefit out of regular exercise, and that some of these benefits are so subtle and interconnected that they are difficult to describe. For example, the quality of my sleep is much better than it has ever been before in my life and this is a direct result of regular exercise–but you would not normally think of sleep quality as being a benefit of exercise. The other major benefit that I credit to regular exercise is the discipline that it taught me. I later used this discipline to achieve two major goals: one was quitting smoking, the other was starting a business. I believe that the discipline that I learned from getting into shape is what allowed me to later succeed at both of these goals.
Mistake #2: Accepted the “default life plan” that others might impose on me
I made this mistake for roughly the first 30 years of my life, but I would not say that it was a tragic mistake. Had I continued to ignore this little detail I think the end result would have been tragic, but as it was things turned out pretty well. Let me try to tell you what I am talking about here.
My “default life plan” has to do with the expectations that others put on me in this life. Of course I am perceiving other people’s expectations of me and so really this “default life plan” is really all in my own head–just as it might also be in your own head. These are the roles and expectations that you believe you are expected to live up to, or follow. You may believe in these roles very strongly or you may just give them a tiny bit of power.
Your own situation will be unique but chances are good that you have some sort of role in your mind that you may have been following. Hopefully by listening to the default life plan that I thought I had to follow, you may wake up from your own dream and realize that you may actually want to try a different course.
I would say that this has happened to me on two different levels. Let me start with the first.
Level one: I assume that my default life plan is to go to college, get a job, get married, have kids, etc.
In some ways I am grateful for my addiction and my alcoholism because it threw a major monkey wrench into this default plan before it could unwind too far. During my college education I was seriously derailed because of drug and alcohol addiction, which brought me into treatment and totally changed the course of my life.
It took me several years in treatment before I figured out that I could consciously think about my “default life plan” and possibly change (or challenge) those expectations that I held in my own mind. Expectations about what I was “supposed” to do in life. Keep in mind that no one else was really putting those expectations there other than ME. Yet I was projecting ideas from other people in my life, from family, from society, from role models, etc.
For example, after I found some stability in early recovery I found myself a bit bored and without direction. My sponsor advised me to go back to college and get that degree that I had fell short of in the past. Not a bad suggestion, so I took it, and went back to school.
In retrospect, I was still following the default plan. Based on my later success, this diversion into college was probably optional, and may have even been an outright distraction. I was simply going through the motions of what I thought was expected of me.
Fast forward about a decade and I have clearly rejected the default life plan. I am not married, I have no kids. And even though I finished college, I have never really used my degree, and instead I have made my way successfully in the world of entrepreneurship. Looking back, college was probably optional.
Level two: Accepting or rejecting the default recovery solution.
This is the second way in which I have “woke up” during my recovery. At some point I realized that I did not have to just accept the default solution for recovery that everyone seemed to be pushing me towards (12 step programs). Again, I don’t really think this was a huge mistake, because I accepted this help and support when I needed it the most, and then I transitioned away from it when I was stronger and more stable in recovery. I just think the real mistake would have been to continue on that path for life, and continue on without exploring more personal options for growth.
Solution: Don’t accept the default plan for your life. Realize that the default plan for your life is something that YOU are creating in your own mind. Other people (and society) may have opinions about what you should or should not be doing, but you have to hold those opinions in your mind if they are going to have any power over you.
My advice is to reject those opinions. Simply reject them outright and replace them with your own desires. If that sounds selfish then you are probably guilty of accepting some of the chains that others would seek to place on you. It is NOT selfish to follow your own desires. How do you think you can best perform God’s will (if you want to put it in a spiritual context)? Certainly not by being meek and by following other’s expected roles for you.
The movers and shakers in history were not just following orders from other people. If you want to create something amazing in this life then you are going to have to take the reigns at some point. I created a huge recovery website without any support at all. Other people in my life just nodded their head and smiled politely when I told them my goals, but they did not get excited or enthusiastic or believe that it was possible for me to create that success. This is because it did not fit in with their expected roles for me. Creating something that has a positive impact on others fell outside of the scope of their expectations.
It takes guts to follow your own path. My only mistake here was in giving too much power to other people for far too long. Luckily I moved past that mental hurdle by casting aside these supposed expectations from others, and simply pursuing what I wanted to create.
Mistake #3: Stayed stuck in fear of leaving AA for too long
My only mistake when leaving the 12 step program was in allowing fear and guilt to dominate my life for too many months. I was so incredibly hard on myself during that transition and if I could go back I would have simply assured myself that I was doing the right thing.
I do not necessarily believe that everyone should leave the 12 step program, or that they should abandon daily meetings. I simply wanted to do so because the daily meetings were no longer serving me well. I pay very close attention in meetings and therefore I felt like I was held hostage by people who droned on for far too long and added nothing of value.
I second guessed myself constantly with things like “Do I just have a bad attitude in regards to AA meetings, or are they really the waste of my time that I think they are?” While I had this debate in my mind I continued to attend meetings and carefully observed my reaction to them.
For me this was about my freedom and how I managed my time, and my life. The daily meetings were no longer serving me and there were alternatives that seemed to be more helpful to me at the time. For example, I was working, going to school, exploring online recovery, exercising, and building a side business. Going to a meeting every single day was distracting from these other projects, all of which seemed to enhance my recovery as well.
So for several months I waffled back and forth as to whether or not I should actually abandon the meetings. I was racked with guilt and fear because the message in traditional recovery is very clear: Leave AA and you relapse and die. Seriously, this is what people tell you in the meetings. If you leave you will surely drink and die. This is what I was battling against.
I don’t think you should leave a recovery program if it is still serving you well. Obviously this takes a great deal of honesty and self analysis to really determine if a program is helping you or not. Many people will leave AA and then relapse due to self sabotage. They talked themselves into leaving just so they could relapse and drink. I talked myself into leaving so that I could free up more time and do other things to grow in my recovery. Big difference there.
Solution: The solution is to find a healthy path in recovery, whether that involves AA or not. If you are depending on the meetings to keep you sober then you might take a hard look at your personal program of recovery and see where the weakness is. Dependency on anything is probably not a good thing, including dependency on daily meetings. On the other hand, if you happen to get a lot out of the meetings and they help you to challenge yourself and to grow in life, do not even think about leaving them. Stick with them and continue to grow in your recovery. The reason that I left the meetings was because they were no longer serving me.
Another thing that you might ask yourself is: “What am I going to do if I am not going to meetings?” I had a good answer for that question. If you do NOT have a good answer for that question, I would suggest that you keep going to meetings for now.
It took me a long time after leaving AA before I finally felt confident in myself and in my recovery again. I would say it took several months or even a whole year. During that time, what happened is that I watched many other friends and acquaintances in AA slowly start to relapse. Many of these people who relapsed had warned me when I left AA that I was headed for certain relapse. I could not help but notice this twist of fate as it unfolded before my eyes. The very people who had warned me about leaving AA were forced to admit that I may have found a better path for myself. Unfortunately, recovery is pass/fail. You either stay sober, or you don’t. I was grateful to have stayed sober in spite of my fear of leaving AA.
I used to resent the people who warned me that I was going to relapse and die if I left the program. But now I can look back and see that their warnings were entirely based in fear. Such people fear for their own recovery, not for mine. This is something that they will not generally admit out loud though, or even realize for themselves. When they caution people against leaving AA, they are really cautioning themselves.
Today, I no longer live in that place of fear.
Mistake #4: Believed it was all about literature and daily meetings when in fact it was about personal growth
In early recovery I falsely believed that the solution was all about studying recovery literature and attending daily meetings. This was simply based on what I was being told at the time. “The solution is in the steps.” Everyone was telling me to read that Big Book, to study the literature, that the wisdom in it could change my life. For the first two years I assumed that all of this was true, so I studied the literature and attended daily meetings, even though all of it somehow felt “off” to me.
Later on I came to the following realizations, though this took me several years:
1) That daily meetings were a dependency and a crutch, and were not the source of true recovery strength.
2) That recovery literature was old, out of date, old fashioned, boring, and non-magical. Meaning that there is no magic or secret formula that makes the 12 steps work.
What I came to realize is that the following 2 step program was just as effective as any 12 step program, so long as someone followed it with passion and enthusiasm:
1) Don’t drink or use addictive drugs no matter what.
2) Take positive action every day to improve your life and your health.
This proved to be just as effective as a 12 step program, only without all of the extra steps thrown in, the daily grind of meetings, and the mystical element where everyone believes that the sequence of 12 steps holds some sort of magical powers.
It took me many years to realize and accept the fact that success in recovery was really about:
1) Personal commitment to abstinence.
2) Daily action towards personal growth.
Solution: Make a commitment to stay clean and sober no matter what. Then, make a commitment to take positive action every single day to improve your life. This is the (much simplified) path that I have found in recovery. It took me years to accept it and cast off the expected role of traditional recovery.